Saturday, 18 October 2014

The criteria of authenticity, again

I spend a lot of time thinking about the criteria of authenticity in historical Jesus studies. I remember already as a master's student realizing that they didn't work, but not then really being able to say why. I still struggle to explain the problem: and by then I don't mean that it is absolutely clear in my own head and I have not the words to explain what is clear but rather that I am still parsing out the issue myself. As such my blog posts on the criteria should be read as a sort of stream of consciousness, a glimpse into an ongoing dialogue that is taking place inside my head.

I begin, as one always should in addressing matters of method, by asking "What is the question that this method seeks to answer?" This I think is where we get into problems. Ostensibly the question is "What did Jesus do and say?" But that's not really what the criteria of authenticity are designed to answer. Rather, they are designed to answer the question "Did Jesus do or say what is reported in this particular pericope?" Procedurally do so by asking "Does this pericope pass the criteria that we have developed to determine whether Jesus did or said what the pericope reports him doing and saying?" An affirmative answer is defined as "authentic" and the pericope can now be put in the bin called "Things Jesus said or did," whilst a negative answer as "inauthentic and must now be put in the bin labelled "Things Jesus did not do or say?"

That there are problems with asking this question is evident the moment that scholars have to add the qualifier "something like," as in "Did Jesus do or say something like what is reported in this particular pericope?" or "Does this pericope pass the criteria that we have developed to determine whether Jesus did or said what the pericope reports him doing and saying?" The difficulty of course is that "something like" is semantically equivalent to "something unlike." Judging that Jesus did something like x is the same as saying that Jesus did something unlike x. The practical question then is whether the thing was more like or unlike what is reported, and the most precise answer will give a degree: this is 75% like, 25% like; this is 40% like 60% unlike. Then there is the thorny question of how much unlikeness renders something inauthentic. The qualifier "something like" ends up with affirmative judgments about events that tell us in fact very little about events.

The problem is that the question "Did Jesus do something like what is reported in this particular pericope?", and its procedural reflex, "Does this pericope pass the criteria that we have developed to determine whether Jesus did or said what the pericope reports him doing and saying?" can admit of only two possible answers, yes or no, whilst the qualifier "something like" is a question of degree. This points at an epistemic reality: the question of "What happened?" is not one that can be answered by yes or no judgments regarding the historicity of textual reports. Not to mention the question "Does this pericope pass the criteria that we have developed to determine whether Jesus did or said what the pericope reports him doing and saying?" can never lead us to the quite conceivable situation in which Jesus did something that is unreported in and yet can be inferred from the gospels.

Thus we must either: revise the question ("What did Jesus do and say?") to fit the procedure ("Does this pericope pass the criteria that we have developed to determine whether Jesus did or said what the pericope reports him doing and saying?"); the procedure to fit the question; or something of both. The final option seems the question. Please allow me to suggest that rather than ask "What did Jesus do and say?" we ask "What understanding of Jesus's life and activity best accounts for the data relevant for studying his life and activity?" Such data would be found in the canonical gospels but also potentially the balance of the New Testament, the Apostolic Fathers, etc. When approaching a particular pericope the question then becomes not "Did Jesus do what is reported?" but rather "What event(s) in Jesus's life led to Matthew or Mark or Luke or John or Thomas reporting that Jesus did what is reported, and in the precise that why that it is reported?" Some times the best answer will be "None at all": that is, the text in question is complete fiction, and in fact at marked variance with how Jesus actually operated. Sometimes the best answer will operate on a fairly genuine level; we can, for instance, conclude with greater confidence that Jesus regularly engaged in speech acts that can be described as parabolic than we can that these acts had such and such precise content. Some times the best answer will sound a lot like the text in question; the best answer to the question "What event(s) in Jesus's life led Matthew et. al. to report that Jesus regularly used the phrase 'Son of Man'?" is "Jesus regularly used the phrase 'Son of Man.'" Some times the best answer will be "I have no idea." In answering these questions the heuristics that drive certain criteria might reappear, for in many cases they rest upon quite legitimate insights (for instance, the recognition that the apparent infrequency of the term "Son of Man" outside the Jesus tradition suggests that we are dealing not with the retrojection of distinctive Christian language on to said tradition but rather with a reminiscence that this language was distinctive of Jesus's pattern of speech), but this would not be the same as utilizing the criteria of authenticity precisely because the question is no longer "Is this passage authentic?"

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